By Bill Finley
Lady Aurelia (Scat Daddy) likes having a friend around, and who can blame her? Trainer Wesley Ward shipped his star filly Thursday to York, England for the Aug. 25 G1 Nunthorpe S. and didn’t want her to be by herself on the plane or for the van ride from the airport in Scotland to the race course. So he has enlisted an old pal to accompany her on the trip, former Royal Ascot winner Strike the Tiger (Tiger Ridge).
It’s a glamorous assignment for the now 10-year-old, whose post-racing life could have easily taken a wrong turn. He’s a one-hit wonder, winning the Windsor Castle S. at Royal Ascot in 2009, giving Ward his first winner at the meet. But he was unable to sustain that top level of competition, and while he did finish second in the GIII Transylvania S. in 2010 at Keeneland, what followed was an all-too-typical decline down the class ladder. By 2014, he was running in $12,500 and $16,000 claimers at Tampa Bay Downs and struggling to so much as pick up an occasional check.
With Strike the Tiger having obvious sentimental value to Ward, he kept close tabs on the horse and told his connections that whenever they were ready to retire him he wanted him back.
“He was making his way down the ladder and I went to Kellyn Gorder, who had him, and said that whenever you are ready to retire the horse I would give him a wonderful home for the rest of his life,” he said. “He was very gracious, a wonderful guy. He didn’t require any payment. He gave me the horse.”
Ward has done the same for many of his horses that start to fall through the cracks and race in claiming races. He’ll reacquire them and put them to use as stable ponies.
“With a lot of these horses, they really don’t like getting turned out,” Ward said. “Some do, some don’t. I have a whole farm full of them down in Florida that I have retired. In Ocala, I collect all my old horses. I have 13 ex-racehorses that we rotate throughout the year and use as ponies.”
Strike the Tiger, who was reacquired by Ward shortly after his last race, a Mar. 5, 2014 claimer at Tampa., quickly adapted to his new job and did so well that he was assigned to the stable’s brightest star, Lady Aurelia.
“He fell right into his role as a pony and he’s wonderful with all the horses,” Ward said. “He ponies Lady Aurelia by himself. He’s just a real gentle soul as a horse. I just can’t let him take her behind the gate because when he goes near the gate he acts differently because he remembers his old days as a war horse.”
Realizing that Lady Aurelia probably wouldn’t be happy traveling all the way to England by herself and without her best buddy, Ward got permission from the Stonestreet team to bring Strike the Tiger along. According to Matt Haugh, the U.S. representative for IRT, the company that will ship the Ward horses to England, bringing Strike the Tiger only added about 20% to the price tag.
“I think it’s great, what Wesley is doing,” Haug said. “As soon as I heard Strike the Tiger, that name rang a bell, sounded familiar. Sure enough, he was in our database. In 2009, we shipped him over there and have been doing it for Wesley from day one. It’s kind of neat to see him return to the scene of the crime, so to speak.”
Haugh said this is the first time he can ever recall a stable pony accompanying an American horse on a trip overseas.
“Usually, I’m always going with a few horses over there, but this time Lady Aurelia was the only one going over to race and would have been going by herself,” Ward said. “In order to ensure a smooth trip, I wanted her best buddy to go with her. I thought that would be better than her traveling by herself.”
The Nunthorpe will be the fifth time Lady Aurelia has raced in Europe and her first start since she won the June 20 G1 King’s Stand S. at Royal Ascot. John Velazquez rode her that day, but with Frankie Dettori again healthy, he will get the assignment.
“I’m really excited about racing her over there again,” Ward said. “She came out of the last race really well. I do go back and forth with her a lot and when she comes home she gets a good three, three-and-a-half week break where we don’t do much with her. The two months between races is ideal and I think she’s ready to put in a really good race.”